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Paved With Good Intentions

New York
Avery Fisher Hall
10/28/2001 -  
Johannes Brahms: Sonata # 2
Johann Sebastian Bach: Sonata # 1
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Sonata K377
Camille Saint-Saens: Sonata # 1

Hilary Hahn (violin)
Natalie Zhu (piano)

Let me say at the outset that I have great respect for Hilary Hahn. To have achieved such a high level of technical competence at the age of 21 is remarkable, and to have the courage to program such a quietly intellectual recital as the one presented yesterday is admirable. However, her youth and inexperience betrayed her on this occasion: this was absolutely the worst hall in which to attempt such a cerebral program. In order to have any chance of putting over even one of these gentle pieces in such an urban cavern as Avery Fisher, one must possess a gigantic instrumental sound. Ms. Hahn, with all of her obvious talent, has instead a violinistic tone which mirrors her speaking voice: charming, tiny and a bit shy.

The concert was part of a virtuoso series featuring some very big headliners and the crowd showed almost from the beginning that Ms. Hahn was considered merely a throw-in. Applause between each movement of the Brahms belied the audience’s sophistication and, even though they clapped three times, the sum total of their appreciation was lukewarm at best. The A Major is the most intimate of the three Brahms sonatas and received a decent but not passionate performance, marred in spots by virtual inaudibility (particularly in the pizzicato sections of movement 2). This was a strange opening work for any recital, but would have been much more satisfying in a smaller hall such as Weill or the Y. The Lilliputian nature of the concert was even further emphasized in the solo Bach, Ms. Hahn not releasing her bow from the strings at the end of the first movement in a desperate attempt to keep the sound of several hands clapping from ruining the mood (she failed), the overall sonority pleasant but not uplifting. Even her impressive harmonics could not save this rendition. Unaccompanied Bach in the big hall needs a positively spiritual performance. I have heard wonderful versions here by Kyung-Wha Chung and Perlman, but in smaller hands the effect is deadening. People began to walk out of this recital during the Bach and started a trend which continued throughout the second half of the program.

Yehudi Menuhin used to say that he never really knew how to play Mozart until, as an adult, he attended performances of his operas at Salzburg. Ms. Hahn is still in the early stages of her learning curve and is not yet capable of recreating the breathy, singing style necessary to communicate this delicate music properly. With more resolve than savvy, she persisted in presenting this music, somewhat burdened with a long set of variations, in a technically expert but ultimately uninteresting style. The strain of the obvious disconnect with the public showed on her face (she has endearingly not yet learned to mask her feelings while on stage) and it was obvious at this point that no electricity was to be felt this particular afternoon. The pianist did nothing to dispel the atmosphere: self-effacing to a fault, she was accurate enough but a highly forgettable interpreter. I began to think that Weill was indeed not the proper auditorium for this bill of fare; rather it was more reminiscent of a student performance at the Paul Hall at nearby Juilliard: just another quotidian reading by a promising undergraduate.

I can’t believe that I am saying this, but, in the context of this recital, the best piece on the program by far was the Saint-Saens. Here there is more superficial passion built into the music and there is even a chance for the soloist to show off her abilities to play tres anime. Ms. Hahn dazzled in the finale, but almost against her will. I truly do think that it is great to be able to present only the “serious” side of the music, but in this type of public performance, a little showmanship goes a long way. Even Ms. Hahn’s choice of encore, which she announced in advance thereby diffusing even this little bit of anticipatory excitement, was bizarre: two unspectacular pieces, one by Bach and one by Stravinsky, which absolutely refused to allow the soloist any opportunity for pyrotechnical wizardry.

I am not saying that every musician should be Liza Minelli or that pandering to popular taste at a classical concert is necessary or even desirable, but there has to be some nod to theatricality if one is to make it in New York, New York. This concert was doomed when the brochure was published; this was simply the wrong program for the wrong crowd at the wrong hall. The battle being lost early for the hearts and minds of the jury, in retrospect it would have behooved Ms. Hahn’s advisers to have moved for a change of venue.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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